CHRISTIAN Churches in East Germany have not had an easy time during the 30 years of the existence of the Communist state. But a number of factors have combined in the last couple of years to make their situation more tolerable.
First, the Ostpolilik initiated by the former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, which paved the way for the diplomatic recognition of the German Democratic Republic by the West and ended its political isolation, gradually led to some liberalisation within that state.
Second, the Communist authorities in East Germany -as elsewhere in Eastern Europe — began to realise that the Churches were not going to disappear from Europe and that it would be more sensible to enlist their support in areas where co-operation was possible than to incur their hostility.
With growing economic problems and increasing discontent among their intellectuals. governments began to view the Churches as a stabilising influence within society.
On March 6, 1978, the Chairman of the State Council of the GDR, Mr Erich Honecker, received a delegation of East German Lutheran Church dignitaries led by Bishop Albrecht Schonherr. At the meeting both sides acknowledged the mutual benefits of Church-State detente. Agreement was reached on several measures: the introduction of religious programmes on radio and television; arrangements for pastoral care in prisons; provision for state pensions for church employees; and financial support by the State for the celebration of the Luther Jubilee in 1980.
1 he government gave priority to its dealings with Lutheran leaders because the Lutheran Church — officially known in Germany as the "Evangelical Church" — is the largest Christian body in East Germany, embracing some 65 per cent of the population, while Catholics number about 7 per cent.
The meeting with Protestant leaders was, however, followed a couple of months later by similar encounters between government officials and Catholic bishops who were told that Roman Catholics were "equal citizens" and had a "legitimate place" within East Germany's socialist society.
However, it was not without decades of anguish that ChurchState relations reached the present stage of polite encounters.
At the end of the Second World War Cardinal Konrad von Preysing of Berlin, who was renowned for his outspoken attacks on the Nazis. soon assumed an equally critical attitude towards the atheistic propaganda of the Communist regime. "It is not possible", he said in a pastoral letter in March 1950, "to fight atheistic materialism with mere words or propaganda, as one would fight a philosophical system. Atheistic materialism can be fought successfully only by those who are not themselves materialists ... In the words of Pope Pius XII. 'nobody today has the right to be mediocre'."
A major challenge was faced by the Church when in 1954 the State introduced the Communist ritual or Jugendweihe. the "dedication of youth". It was the Communist equivalent of the Christian rite of confirmation.
It was officially described as a "voluntary" rite of initiation at which, after many months of instruction analogous to confirmation classes, young people solemnly swore allegiance to Marxism-Leninism. In practice, however, the State discriminated against those who did not. participate.
Both the Catholic and Lutheran Churches consistently rejected the Jugendivethe as a ceremony incompatible with the Christian faith. They also condemned other Communistinspired ceremonies such as "socialist name-giving", "socialist wedding", "socialist burial" and so on as anti-Church in intention.
in the late 1950s the outspoken Bishop of Berlin. Cardinal Julius Dopfner, did not hesitate to present to Premier Otto Grotewohl a catalogue of his complaints concerning the violation of religious liberty by the State. Thereafter he was branded "NATO-Bishop" and denied access to East German Territory outside of East Berlin. In 1961 Pope John XXIII translated him to Munich.
The present Bishop of Berlin, Cardinal Alfred Bengsch, has avoided political polemics, his episcopalL being marked rather by a stress on pastoral care, including the holding of pastoral synods in Dresden and Meissen, and works of charity such as collecting money for the Third World.
With the change in the political situation resulting in the worldwide recognition of the German Democratic Republic,. the East German Bishops' Conference, hitherto officially only a provincial conference, was accorded autonomous national status by the Vatican and renamed "Berlin Bishops' Conference" on October 26, 1976.
This implied Vatican recognition of the severence of the links of East German bishops with their colleagues in West Germany, which is what the communist regime had always desired and which helped to pave the way for the present modta
But Church-State differences have continued to occur. Two recent examples were the government plan to introduce cornpulsory lectures in military science for 14 and I5-year-old pupils. and the governmentsponsored ceremony of "dedication or workers", at which all skilled workers are called upon IC) pledge themselves to "the philosophy and ideals of the working class ... and to the great noble cause of socialism and Communism."
While committed Christians in East Germany continue to face discrimination in many subtle ways, the era of head-on collision between Church and State seems Lo be over. Meanwhile East German Christians — Catholics and Protestants alike — derive strength and inspiration from the leadership of a Pope who comes from behind the Iron Curtain and who speaks up loudly for human rights.